The metaverse has the potential to transform education in the classroom. Yet we need to be careful about how we allow big tech companies to intrude into our schools. Next-generation educational technology must not come at the cost of turning our children into nothing more than another source of data mining.
Before we allow Meta, Google and Tencent into the fabric of our education system, we need clear assurance that it won’t just be a matter of “business as usual”. Before we let our children approach the metaverse, we need to be absolutely clear who is watching and how.
Over the next 10 years, the greatest development in education will be the introduction of the metaverse into everyday learning. Zoom virtual classrooms have already become the norm thanks to the pandemic. What if instead of the teacher giving the lesson, it was a student favorite celebrity who teleported to their room via the metaverse?
Historians are already working on projects to faithfully recreate places from the past such as St. Andrew’s Cathedral and the lost Palace of Westminster which burned down in 1834. Imagine a student having their next history lesson inside the Colosseum in Rome, or consider the implications of a student taking a front seat on the battlefield during the Civil War; the metaverse could make all of this possible.
However, despite all the opportunities for educational enrichment, the Metaverse also poses a great threat to the safety of children.
In 2016, British political consultancy Cambridge Analytica harvested data from millions of Facebook profiles without their users’ consent. The firm would target users by inviting them to play free games either on Facebook or on a separate application. These games would then require users to log in and give consent to share not just their data, but that of their friends and mutual friends.
Once the data was compiled, Cambridge Analytica would then build psychological profiles of users before targeting them with bespoke political ads designed to persuade them to vote for the Leave campaign or for Donald Trump in the US presidential election.
Facebook mounted a lengthy defense and claimed they were not at fault. Following the scandal, many resigned themselves to the fact that Facebook’s business model was based on the sale of personal data and that if too much regulation was introduced, the service would have to start charging.
We know Gen Z shares a lot more online because they spend more time on the internet than their older peers. They are less skittish about how their data is shared, despite being the first generation to have their whole lives tracked digitally. Facebook’s age limit is 13, although there are few controls to prevent younger children from signing up.
However, we must exercise caution. The “free” business model of Web 2.0 gives schools the ability to interact with all of human knowledge online. However, this must not come at the cost of data harvesting and contextual advertising that can distort the minds of our young people.
It should be remembered that in the metaverse it will not only be possible to extract information about screen time and clicks. Our eye movements, body movements, and even our vital signs like heart rate could be tracked in order to form even more eerily accurate digital profiles of people. I sincerely hope that education does not fall prey to the model of surveillance capitalism.
We need a happy medium. The open source spirit of the previous two decades should always be evident in education. However, we must ensure that this does not come at the expense of privacy and data collection. One of the guiding principles of child protection is the assumption that children cannot give consent before the age of 16. The same principles should apply to their online data. It must remain tamper-proof until they fully understand the consequences of its sale.
The transformational potential of the metaverse for the classroom is revolutionary. We must take advantage of these technologies for the benefit of our children. If we allow our children to become part of Big Tech’s voracious data-gathering business model, we will only have ourselves to blame.
Léon Hady is the founder of Guide Education. He is an award-winning school leader and contributor to BBC News and The Independent.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.